Artist Interview: kozyndan

Artwork by Kozyndan

kozyndan is a pseudonym for the LA residents Kozue and Dan Kitchens, husband-and-wife artists who are best known for their collaborative work most often inspired by the ocean, the animal kingdom, ecology, and humanity. kozyndan create trip, whimsical and stimulating pieces and have done work for Puma, Nike, Electronic Arts, the Discovery Channel as well as bands such as Weezer and The Postal Service. Jess Nicole had a chat to the two about censorship, working as a couple, the use of humour in art and their thoughts on humanity.

How did kozyndan come about?

Kozy: While at Cal State Fullerton, we had already been dating and living together for a while, but Dan and I had never collaborated on art. I was working on a project for a class, doing a long panoramic drawing of the inside of our apartment. Dan liked it so much he decided to scan it in to the computer and colour it in digitally, just for fun. I was liking it and jumped in to help him finish it and we really liked the result. It was a fun thing. We didn’t think so deeply about it at the time, but we did decide to make another one. We have been collaborating together ever since.

What mediums do you use? Do you have a favourite?

Dan: Pen and ink, pencil, watercolor, color pencil, acrylic, silk screen, Photoshop, clay, etc etc. I think I just like sketching with leafless pencils. The rest I do because I have to.

Kozy: I really like my .03 mechanical pencil, and acrylic gouache paints by Holbein. Most of the paintings we make are made with that paint.

From where does your inspiration for your projects stem?

Dan: From our life and experiences and learning. If you are not overflowing with idea you are not really an artist I don’t think. Inspiration should never be a problem. If so you need to get out of the house more – find a hobby, take a walk in the woods. The world is a wondrous place. So much inspiration out there. For us, a lot of it comes from the ocean and animals, music, ecology, and the places we travel to.

Do you change each other’s work if you dislike it?

Kozy: Oh yeah – we go back and forth at times. I change Dan’s stuff all the time! That’s mostly because most of our work is done in my style – if he has drawn something, I usually redraw it and then I can add whatever I think makes sense.

Dan: Then the sparks fly and we hash it out – that is part of our process. We usually come to a consensus, or whoever feels MOST strongly (or gets the most angry over it – hah!) has their way. We generally keep our egos in check when it comes to these things. This is the key for us to have such a long lasting creative partnership.

Can you describe the emotions and thoughts associated with “A Happy Day On A Dying Sea”?

Dan: We were developing a very specific exhibition at the time about endangered animal species, with this theme of the rainbow running through it. The rainbow was a symbol that for us represented humanity being so out of tune with nature, out of tune with the universe, that we could not understand the signals the universe was trying to send us about how we are just doing shit all wrong. The piece features California sea otters, a species that was hunted nearly to extinction by the early 1800’s, which has caused a chain reaction in the coastal ecosystem that has altered the coastline dramatically (not for the better). It’s a pretty common scenario – we do this kind of thing all over the world. Despite what we do, the animals maintain this sort of sweetness, a purity, a harmony with their environment – it’s something that we should pay more attention to and learn from. The image is intentionally very sweet, but for us a didactic one, ultimately.

'Campbell's Shark Fin Soup'
‘Campbell’s Shark Fin Soup’ 2012, soup can, resin, sculpey, acrylic, wood

‘Campbell’s Shark Fin Soup’ clearly represents your disdain surrounding shark finning – what kind of responses have you received based on this piece?

Dan: Yeah obviously ecology is a big issue in our world, as scuba divers particularly we are concerned about sharks. I think though, honestly, people for the most part don’t really care. Sharks aren’t cute, pure and simple. So people don’t care. One person at least cared enough to BUY the artwork I guess, but we didn’t get much reaction to it, honestly.

How do you feel about humanity?

Dan: The cancer of the Earth.

Kozy: We just need about 4 billion less humans, and things would be manageable.

Dan: We are not pro-human, to say the least. Humanity has so much potential, but it’s hampered buy the tragic flaws of green and selfishness. In the end we also choose the path that is short sighted and destructive, we use our ability to develop technology to suck the world dry of resources and push all other species to extinction.

Has there ever been a time where you have created something and thought it was terrible?

Dan: Most everything I do I feel that was about it. My own worst critic.

Kozy: I am not like Dan in this respect. I think I make pretty decent stuff.

Dan: You do! I do not. Haha.

Many people have gotten tattoos of your work on their body – how do you feel about this?

Dan: I think we both feel a bit weird about it. I guess since we tend to think of our own art as “stupid”, we don’t take our work too seriously you know, and the permanence of a tattoo seems “serious” to us. I always think people will end up regretting having gotten our work tattooed on them a few years down the road and feel bad. This has more to do with our own insecurities though. At the same time it’s really flattering that people like our work enough to do this, and we always grant permission if they ask us and just ask them to send us a photo of the completed tattoo. I only wish they’d get art of our that we really like and think would make a great tattoo on them. I usually don’t get the choices of kozyndan artworks that people get inked on them! Not the choices I would make. Haha.

Kozy: You can see we are conflicted about this.

Dan: Obviously. It’s flattering though, honestly. We have great fans and it’s pretty cool when they have gotten a great tattoo artist to interpret our work on their skin. Some of the tats are amazing.

'An Ode to California' (detail 1)
‘An Ode to California’ (detail 1)

How does creating artwork for musicians differ from creating artwork for advertising clients?

Kozy: I think we are more in sync with musicians, as fellow artists, than we are with corporations. Musicians give us freedom, and there is less censoring and editing usually, so the work ends up more pure.

Dan: Those works end up looking more like one of our artworks, and less like some generic illustration, which can tend to happen with advertising clients. When you have to filter your work through ad agency creative, a marketing team, and their client etc., almost invariably a lot is lost. This happens far less with music stuff.

Have you ever had trouble with censorship?

Dan: All the time!! Haha. We almost always, in our own work, want to convey a sense of humans moving back towards a primitive state in which they are more in harmony with nature. Usually, visually this is conveyed be making them naked, shameless. Unfortunately there is a lot of shame in “civilized” society. So we have run up against that stuff. For sure. In the fine art setting its not a big deal, except for promoting the work – social media often frowns on nipples, which is just beyond me. I dunno – we are not as repressed as the mainstream culture I guess, so that kind of thing can happen.

Kozy: When we work with commercial clients though, we pretty much know what will happen if we try to push boundaries – its a waste of time because we know most clients are afraid of getting flack for anything offensive to ANYONE. Its kind of sad, but it just saves us time if we censor ourselves for illustration projects. In our own artwork though, we don’t really worry about offending people.

How do the senses (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling) effectkozyndan’s artwork?

Kozy: Interesting! I guess, obviously for me – my eyes and ears are united in their love of trippy-ness. Music is a big part of creation for me. I am always playing music in the studio. THe audio journey often guides and influences my hand.

Dan: In a literal sense our work is filtering our experiences in life. SO what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel, or at least the memory of those experiences, are in some form illustrated to become the basis of a lot of our artwork.

'Rising Tide'
‘Rising Tide’ 2011, acrylic on board

Your works often depict a love of nature and the sea – what makes these things special to you?

Dan: I always think that nature is perfect. The systems it has devised over millions and billions of years of experimentation and evolution are far more efficient and beautiful than anything we create as humans. Everything we make is just a wasteful destructive pale copy of some perfect system nature already created. As artists we are often striving to make the least flawed copy of something that exists in the universe – be it an animal painting, or a visual explanation of a mathematical truth. Nature IS special. People act as if nature is some “other”, something separate from us, and we disconnect from it and waste our time with all this industry that serves no purpose in the end except to make people more unhealthy, more dangerous to one another and to the rest of the species we share the planet with, more bored, less alive. We’d rather seek magic. That isn’t found in the concrete jungles of human cities. So we tend to draw our inspiration from the natural world.

In some of your works the subject matter is serious and yet it is treated in a playful way – why is this?

Dan: Humor is such a good way to get people to listen. Humor can be sharp like a knife and cut. I think humor is often not taken seriously as a means to enlighten, and yet a lot of the harshest criticism of greed and injustice has historically come from humor – from cartoonists, and satirists and comedians, and so on. Those people are the ones who get people to listen. Take the US, where we live, the only people who call the businessmen and politicians out on their shit, the only people explaining to the masses what systems the rich and powerful have put into place to imprison the poor and wring every last bit of money from them and point out how the media is in collusion with all this are people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver. With humor they can cut deep and make people understand – they are one of the only counterbalances to the force of greed. I don’t think that in our work we think so much about HOW we employ humor to make a point though. Its just our natural way. We both have a dry senses of humor, low opinions of humanity, and make art with the sensibility of illustrators – so we literally illustrate the gallows humor we express to one another about these topics.

Kozy: We always assume people won’t even get it, but I guess some people do?

What’s some advice you can give to aspiring artists?

Dan: Errr…I always tell aspiring artists NOT to become artists. At least if you love making art – let it be pure, unencumbered and adulterated by concerns of commerce. Once you have to SELL to make a living, once you are scrambling to make your art earn you money – promoting constantly, trying to deal with clients or gallery owners or curators and the politics that is involved with all that, its much harder to create your art without all that other crap creeping in, without drawing something and thinking “Will this sell??”. It becomes harder not to self censor once you are trying to make a living from it. If you do choose to become an artist as a profession, then you have to prepare methods that work for your own personality to shield your creative process from all that external nonsense.

Kozy: Also – draw draw draw paint paint paint. And make some time to go out and see and experience LIFE. I find the art of people who are so dedicated to making art, so into drawing constantly every day, to often be lacking in something. The are can be technically beautiful, but its missing heart.

Dan: Artists are supposed to be on the vanguard of thought – go out and experience weird shit. Be fearless in expressing ideas that aren’t popular yet, and definitely live your life according to what makes sense to you, rather than by the rules set forth by society. This doesn’t seem to have much to do with making images, but it really does. Its where the power of an artist lies, not in their style or the tools they use, but in the way they live their life.

What is the process for making your panoramics?

Kozy: When we travel we always try to remember to take series of images of places that look visually complex, usually when stuck in cities. Later on dan prints them all out and I lay them out and get out a long piece of paper usually a bit over a meter long and 20 cm tall, and I just start drawing from left to right. I get lost in the detail and just try to draw every bit i can. While i work on that Dan and I will be talking about that place and our experiences there and also whatever else happens to be on our mind at the moment we are drawing. Dan begins sketching character and narrative ideas and we decide that way what kinds of fictional elements we will work into the panoramic. I trace his drawings, and usually make more of my own and he scans all the lifework into the computer and cleans up the drawings and composites the characters into the background. We put the file on two computers and just begin filling it in with the paint brush tool – painting until everything is filled on one of the files and then we combine them together and make some final adjustments.

What are the best and worst things about creating art as a couple?

Dan: Haha – that is a loaded question. Well I am not sure how many artists could pull off staying with and working with their spouse for as long as we have. Everything is so tied together. Personal life bleeds into the studio process and creative differences affect your home life. You can never “eave it at the office”, as it were. I think our personality types are natural adept at this just by chance. We both happen to be easy going enough, happen to be just good enough at containing our ego to make it work. We don’t get as worked up as before even about losing a battle over a creative direction for an artwork, but it sometimes still happens.

Kozy: its really great to be accomplishing all this stuff together. We both feel like we couldn’t have gotten where we have without the other and that helps keep our love strong, and when we fail the blame is shared so we don’t have to be so hard on our selves or the other person. At the same time, we hardly get a break from one another. We are together 24/7 since we have the same hobbies and work together and play together and work out together and trade together. We really have to force ourselves apart sometimes – force ourselves to go out separately with people, force ourselves to trade separately sometimes so that we can actually miss each other. Its a good and bad thing, but overall its way more good than bad.

Dan: We’ll keep doing it unless the ratio shifts the other way I suppose!

‘kin-san’s dream’, 2004, pencil, digital



Interview conducted by Jess Nicole

Visit kozyndan’s website

Feature image is: ‘Domo Arigato Mr. Nakamura’ 2002, pencil, digital